Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Mini-reviews: Poison, Best, Z, Crooked

Poison Dark and Drowning, ABest Man, The

Jessica Cluess, A Poison Dark and Drowning — ***Warning: slight spoilers for A Shadow Bright and Burning.***

Henrietta Howel is now a full-fledged sorcerer defending England against the Ancients, horrible monsters from another world. When she and her fellow sorcerers discover the existence of special weapons that might help defeat the Ancients, they immediately begin the search. But along the way, Henrietta learns some disturbing truths about the Ancients, her friends, and her own past. I have to say, I enjoyed the first book very much, but now I’m really nervous about where the series is going! Certain character developments were unwelcome, to say the least. But then again, the second installment of a trilogy often ends dark — think The Empire Strikes Back — and everything still turns out fine. I’m curious to see what will happen in the third (and presumably final) book now!

Grace Livingston Hill, The Best Man — An old-fashioned novel of romantic suspense featuring secret agent Cyril Gordon, who infiltrates a criminal gang and steals a secret message that has grave implications for national security. To evade the criminals’ pursuit, he runs into a church where a wedding is about to take place. The guests mistake him (he thinks) for the best man, so he stands in front of the altar…only to realize at the end of the ceremony that he is actually the groom! Now Cyril must not only deliver the message to the US government, but he must also deal with the stranger who is now his wife. Overall, this book was a fine read, but it is quite dated, and there’s really nothing remarkable about it other than the extremely farfetched premise.

Z Murders, TheAll the Crooked Saints

J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders — Everyman Richard Temperley takes an overnight train into London and must share a compartment with a surly elderly man. He goes from the train station to a hotel, where he sees his traveling companion sitting in an armchair in one of the public rooms — only to discover that the man has been murdered. Richard is, of course, a prime suspect, as is the woman seen leaving the hotel shortly before the victim was found dead. Of course, Richard falls in love with the woman and decides to clear her name (and his own) by finding the real murderer. The idea that the police would allow Richard such free rein to investigate is absurd, and the revelation of the true murderer is nothing short of bonkerballs insane, but I honestly enjoyed this book a lot! I’ll definitely seek out more by this Golden Age author.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints — The tiny town of Bicho Raro, hidden away in the Colorado desert, is a place people visit for only one reason: to find a miracle. Daniel Soria is the current Saint of Bicho Raro, the one responsible for performing miracles; but the results are almost never what the seekers of such miracles expect. His cousin Beatriz could have been the Saint, but she prefers to focus on tangible, scientific pursuits. And the third Soria cousin, Joaquin, operates a pirate radio station under the name Diablo Diablo, hoping someday to become a famous DJ. All three cousins are changed irrevocably when two new visitors arrive in Bicho Raro, and these changes will alter the status quo for the Soria family forever. Much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, this novel didn’t quite click for me. The first half especially is very slow going, as Stiefvater sets up the world and explains the status quo; the second half is paced better, and I found myself getting more invested in the book. But I think the world-building gets too much emphasis, at the expense of character and plot. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism in general, so maybe this just wasn’t the right book for me.

 

Mini-Reviews #4: June Books, Part 2

More mini-reviews! Just when I think I’m getting to the end of my backlog, I go and read more books. Will I never learn?

Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You, TheSchool for Unusual Girls, A

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You — Oof. I really wanted to like this one — it’s a modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing! But I was very underwhelmed, and the main reason is that I couldn’t stand the protagonist, Trixie. She’s incredibly self-absorbed and utterly convinced of her own righteousness at all times, which makes her downright mean to the people around her. She’s also a proud geek girl, obsessed with comic books and “Doctor Who.” Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against these things! But Trixie’s constant references to geek culture didn’t feel real to me. Instead, I felt like the book was trying to pander to a specific audience and going way over the top. In short, I just wasn’t a fan.

Kathleen Baldwin,  A School for Unusual Girls — This one’s about — you guessed it — a school for unusual girls. Sixteen-year-old Georgiana Fitzpatrick doesn’t behave as a proper young lady should; and when one of her scientific experiments nearly burns down the stables, her parents pack her off to a school whose reputation for strictness is legendary. Of course, Georgie soon realizes that the school is not what it seems and that her fellow students all have unique, mysterious abilities. There’s also romance, kidnapping, and a touch of espionage. All in all, a fun read, although not particularly groundbreaking in the genre. I’d like to read the sequel at some point.

Tell Me Three ThingsStrong PoisonDecent Proposal, The

Julie Buxbaum, Tell Me Three Things — I enjoyed this novel despite its ridiculous premise: Jessie Holmes moves across the country when her dad remarries, and she is forced to attend a pretentious private school where she doesn’t know anyone — that is, until the mysterious Somebody/Nobody emails her, offering friendship and guidance in navigating the social scene at her new school. Though Jessie is skeptical at first, she soon opens up to Somebody/Nobody and speculates on who it might be. To the reader, the answer is astoundingly obvious, but it’s still fun to watch Jessie get there. A nice YA romance if you’re into that kind of thing.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison — I read this installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey series years ago but didn’t remember much about it, except that Lord Peter finally meets his match in Harriet Vane, a young woman who’s on trial for murdering her ex-lover. For me, this was the best novel in the series so far. The mystery is well plotted (although, as with other books in the series, the suspect list is so small that the true mystery is howdunit, not whodunit), and the romance is nicely underplayed. I’m definitely loving this series more and more as I continue to read, and I’m looking forward to the next book!

Kemper Donovan, The Decent Proposal — I was drawn to this book because of the title, and I knew very little about it going in. The premise is that a mysterious benefactor has promised two L.A. residents, happy-go-lucky Richard and highly regimented Elizabeth, that they will each receive half a million dollars if they agree to meet each other once a week for a year and talk — just talk. Of course they accede to the proposal, and of course they start out as very different people but eventually find some common ground. I liked the development of the relationship between Richard and Elizabeth, especially since I honestly didn’t know whether it was going to end in friendship or romance. I could have done without most of the other characters, actually; they seemed like they should get their own novels rather than being relegated to secondary characters in this one. I also think people who have lived in L.A. would get more out of the book, since it’s definitely written in that specific setting. Overall, I did like the book, but I’m glad I got it from the library instead of buying.

Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Mini-Reviews #1: Readathon leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t spent much time on this blog lately. *blush* What can I say — life has been busy for the past couple of months, and when I’ve had free time, I’ve preferred to spend it doing other things (like reading!). As a result, I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I haven’t written about yet, and the thought of sitting down to compose a full review for each one is incredibly daunting. So, rather than continuing to avoid the task, I’ve decided to do three batches of mini-reviews — just titles and authors of the books I’ve been reading, along with a couple of sentences expressing my opinions. Once I catch up, I plan to go back to my regular style of reviewing. But for now, here are mini-reviews for the books I read during April’s 24-hour readathon:

Love, Lies and SpiesAs If!

Cindy Anstey, Love, Lies and Spies — A fun, lighthearted bit of Regency fluff for those who enjoy YA historical romance. I found the spy storyline weak, and the romance wasn’t quite compelling for me — Georgette Heyer, this is not! But it’s a pleasant enough read for fans of the genre.

Jen Chaney, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew — This book will only appeal to people who really love the movie “Clueless” and who are fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie knowledge. Fortunately, I fall within this demographic, so I really enjoyed the book!

Hermit of Eyton Forest, TheAlways the BridesmaidWhy Not Me?

Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest — Full disclosure: this installment of the Brother Cadfael series features a male character called Hyacinth. But I still love this series about a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves crimes! (Who wouldn’t?)

Lindsey Kelk, Always the Bridesmaid — Entertaining British chick lit about a young woman named Maddie whose two best friends are at opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: one just got engaged, while the other is getting divorced. My friend pointed out that Maddie is a huge pushover, which she (my friend) found irritating. While I think that’s a fair criticism, I ultimately enjoyed the book for  its humor and romance, so I’d definitely read more by this author.

Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? — I think Mindy Kaling is very talented and hilarious, and this book had me giggling pretty much nonstop. I like that she isn’t preachy, she’s very self-aware, and she doesn’t apologize for her confidence (some might say arrogance). As she says in the book, there’s nothing wrong with being confident — as long as you’ve put in the hard work to back it up. Bottom line: if you like Mindy Kaling, you’ll like this book.

Review: The Lure of the Moonflower

Lure of the Moonflower, TheLauren Willig, The Lure of the Moonflower

***Warning: Possible spoilers for previous books in the series!***

This last installment of the Pink Carnation series finally tells the story of the Pink Carnation herself, Miss Jane Wooliston. It’s 1807, and Napoleon’s armies have invaded Portugal. Officially, the Portuguese royal family have departed for South America; unofficially, the mad Queen Maria is still in the country, providing a focal point for the Portuguese resistance. If the French capture Queen Maria, it will be a decisive victory for Napoleon, so Jane is determined to prevent it by finding her first. But since she is ignorant of both the Portuguese language and the country’s terrain, she’ll need the help of Jack Reid, otherwise known as the Moonflower. Jack, the black sheep of the Reid family, has spied for many nations other than his own, including France. Can Jane trust him not to betray her? And when Jack meets Jane, he’s astonished to discover that the Pink Carnation is a demure young Englishwoman. Can he trust her to maintain her composure — especially when her former lover, a French spy known as the Gardener, is also on Queen Maria’s trail?

I’ve been a fan of the Pink Carnation series ever since the first book, so of course I was eagerly anticipating the final installment. I was especially excited to see that Jane was paired with Jack Reid: they have good chemistry and a believable conflict, as they are both accomplished spies who have trouble trusting each other and showing any hint of vulnerability. Their romance is the main focus of the book, with the spy plot largely being an excuse to get them together — which is fine by me, since I just wanted to see a satisfying ending for these characters whom I’ve grown to love over the course of the series. I do have some complaints, however, mostly because of the stories left untold. For example, we get a little bit of Jane’s romance with the Gardener, but that really should have been its own book. There are also a few minor characters from the series that I wish had gotten more closure. But Willig does include an afterword where she explains her decision to end the series here and gives a little “Where are they now?” update on all her recurring characters. So overall, I think this was a worthy ending to a delightful series, and I look forward to re-reading all the books one of these days!

Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of SpiesGiles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War

This book tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange that, in the author’s view, helped to stave off World War Three. William Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, was a Soviet agent (actually British by nationality) who was captured in New York city because of his work spying on the U.S. nuclear program. Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union to get a look at its nuclear arsenal; he was shot down on one of his missions and imprisoned in Russia. And Frederic Pryor actually had nothing to do with the spy game at all — he was simply an American student in Berlin studying Eastern economics, arrested by the Stasi because he fit their profile of what a spy should look like. Cold War tensions were running high at this time, so the agreement to trade Abel for Powers and Pryor was a vital gesture of good faith between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

In my American history classes in school, my teachers would always run out of time at the end of the year, so we’d usually only get as far as World War II in the lesson plan. As a result, I know basically nothing about the Cold War and was excited to read this book to learn more. I have to say, I found it slow going at first, as Whittell takes a long time to set up the three prisoners’ backgrounds. He also goes into stupefying detail about the type of plane Powers flew and the various engineering difficulties that its inventors encountered. But once the prisoners’ arrests are described, the book picks up considerably as it focuses on the political machinations needed to accomplish the prisoner exchange. The book also seems to be very well-researched, as Whittell was able to interview many of the people involved firsthand. I’m not sure it’s a particularly groundbreaking work, but I did find it interesting, and I’m now looking forward to seeing the film version with Tom Hanks.

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 Steps, TheJohn Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

Richard Hannay is fed up. He has just returned to London after several years in South Africa, where he’s led an adventurous life and made a modest fortune. His current life of leisure in England seems incredibly dull by comparison — that is, until his neighbor knocks on his door one day with an amazing story about international conspiracies, assassination plots, and his own very important mission. Hannay isn’t sure what to make of the story at first but agrees to keep his neighbor’s secret. When the man is murdered shortly thereafter, Hannay concludes that his farfetched story must actually be true, and he decides to take over the dead man’s mission to deliver some secret documents to a highly important member of the British government. He immediately finds himself on the run, as the people who murdered his neighbor are now on his trail. Hannay encounters a variety of people on his journey, both friend and foe, and he relies on his instincts to tell him whom he can trust with his story. In some cases these instincts are right, while in others, they are very, very wrong. But somehow, he always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he searches for the mysterious location with the 39 steps, where the evildoers can all be captured in one fell swoop.

This is one of those books that’s fun to read as a historical artifact, but I feel like it would never be published today. Spy thrillers are so popular in book, TV, and movie formats that audiences have become very sophisticated. The plot of this book may have been cutting-edge when it was published in 1915, but for a modern reader, it’s pretty predictable and really strains credulity at times. Hannay’s actual mission isn’t important; the dramatic tension in the book comes from the fact that he’s being followed, as well as the fact that some pursuers are actually lying in wait for him. There is one pretty suspenseful scene near the end where Hannay is in a room with the suspected evildoers, and he’s suddenly struck with self-doubt: are these people actually the bad guys, or has he been imagining the whole thing? But I did mentally roll my eyes at Hannay several times, as he basically blurts out the entire story to everyone he meets without once stopping to wonder, “Should I actually trust this person?” Still, despite its flaws, I did find the book entertaining and would consider reading more of Hannay’s adventures. I also need to check out the Hitchcock movie now!

Review: Rook

RookSharon Cameron, Rook

Centuries after a shift in the Earth’s magnetic poles triggered an apocalyptic event, civilization has been rebuilt, but almost every form of technology is regarded with grave suspicion. In the Sunken City (formerly known as Paris), a revolution has established an oppressive new regime, and everyone who opposes it is ruthlessly executed. But one person dares to flout the authority of this new regime by stealing political prisoners away from their very jail cells: the Red Rook, who boldly leaves a crow’s feather tipped in red in the place of each escapee. No one suspects that the Red Rook is a teenage girl, Sophia Bellamy, who lives in the neighboring Commonwealth. With the help of her brother Tom, her friend Spear, and a small band of loyal friends, Sophia hopes to rescue as many doomed people from the Sunken City as she can. But her plans are complicated by her betrothal to the empty-headed social butterfly René Hasard. Despite her distrust of him, however, Sophia can’t help being attracted — especially when she discovers that his foppish persona might be an act. When a mission goes awry and Tom is captured, Sophia is forced to ask for René’s help, but can she really trust him?

Obviously, this book is an homage to one of my very favorite books, The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I was pleased to discover that it’s very much its own story. The basic idea of a daring rescuer with a secret identity is the same, but the plot diverges very significantly from the original story. I wouldn’t have minded a stricter retelling, but I’m glad this book was able to be inspired by the Pimpernel without simply copying it. I’m not sure how I feel about the science fiction elements; technically we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, but that doesn’t really seem to be necessary to the story, and it sometimes felt distracting. On the other hand, there are a few fun moments where the characters speak reverently about little bits of neon plastic, which are great treasures in this anti-technological world. Overall, I enjoyed both the action-filled plot and the romance, although the latter was a bit TOO romance-y for me (a little too much russet hair and piercing blue eyes and whatnot). I also think René’s true nature could have been left in a little more doubt, which would have increased the dramatic tension. But I did like this book a lot, and Pimpernel fans should definitely check it out!

Review: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, TheLauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

In the autumn of 1806, a popular novel called The Convent of Orsino (written by none other than Miss Gwen!) has sparked a vampire craze in fashionable society. Rumors swirl around one man in particular — Lucien, Duke of Belliston — whose long absence from society is seen as evidence that he is a creature of the night. Practical, outspoken Sally Fitzhugh is determined to prove this rumor false, so she seeks out an acquaintance with the duke. For Lucien, the rumor escalates from inconvenient to dangerous when a young woman is murdered at a society ball, with what appear to be fang marks on her throat. Lucien and Sally quickly realize that someone is framing Lucien for the murder, so together they decide to find the real killer. Is it someone with a personal grudge against Lucien, or could the nefarious French spy known as the Black Tulip be at work again? The more time Lucien and Sally spend together, the more they are drawn to each other; but before they can be together, they must defeat a cunning killer.

This 11th novel in the Pink Carnation series once again combines romance, historical fiction, and a touch of intrigue for a very enjoyable read. I wasn’t totally enthused about the plot of this installment beforehand, since vampires aren’t really my thing, but fortunately they’re not a big part of the story. I also didn’t completely warm up to Lucien or Sally, both of whom seem like types rather than characters…Sally in particular just seems like a younger version of Miss Gwen. But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy in this book! I was pleasantly surprised by the resolution of the mystery, which is quite clever and hangs together well. And as always, I adore the light, tongue-in-cheek tone of the series; it doesn’t take itself too seriously and aims to be entertaining above all else. I should mention that the contemporary story takes some significant steps forward in this installment, with Eloise facing important decisions both personally and professionally. So I’m really looking forward to the next (and last!) Pink Carnation novel, which will finally tell the story of the Carnation herself!